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A Northwest Utility Considers Early Retirement For Some Coal Operations

PacifiCorp released a new economic analysis Thursday that says its customers could save about $248 million over 20 years if the company decides to retire four of its Wyoming coal units by 2022. That would mean closing one coal-fired plant and reducing another plant’s capacity by half.

PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely said any electricity production lost from the retirement of coal operations would be made up in other ways, possibly with energy from wind, solar and natural gas.

Burning coal is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. Coal currently accounts for 60 percent of the electricity that PacifiCorp provides to its customers. The company already is moving away from coal, Gravely says. But the new study suggests this move could happen faster than previously planned.

“There is interest in seeing that happen,” he said.

Sophie Hayes, a senior staff attorney with Western Resource Advocates, said the new study is part of a larger economic trend for coal-fired power plants.

"Coal plants across the West are becoming increasingly uneconomic as renewable energy costs and natural gas prices continue to drop," said Hayes, whose organization advocates for clean air, water and land. "This will also help protect the health and welfare of our families and future generations."

Retiring two of the four coal units at PacifiCorp’s Jim Bridger Power Plant and both of the units that are part of the Naughton Power Plant would have a big impact on jobs and the demand for coal in Wyoming, where the plants operate and where their coal is mined. Gravely said it would also mean a less carbon-intensive mix of electricity for PacifiCorp’s Oregon customers.

“Even though the plants are located in Wyoming, it’s an interconnected system so it is part of the power mix that serves customers in Oregon,” he said. 

In 2016, the Oregon Legislature passed a bill that requires PacifiCorp and Portland General Electric to phase out the supply of coal-fired power to the state by 2030 and double their renewable energy use by 2040. The new policy will eventually strip the utilities of their Oregon customers for coal-fired power.

The company serves 587,365 customers in Oregon and 131,453 customers in Washington through its Pacific Power business unit.

Gravely emphasized that the study is preliminary and any decision remains several months away. PacifiCorp plans to work with regulators and stakeholders before submitting its 2019 Integrated Resource Plan, which is expected in August, to state utility regulators. The company has customers in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and northern California.

<p>A coal mine operation in Wyoming.</p>

Katie Campbell, KCTS9/EarthFix


A coal mine operation in Wyoming.

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